Zatni Arbi, Contributor, Jakarta
Each time my mobile phone rings while I’m inside my house, the hassle begins. I have to maneuver myself into exactly the right position to stay connected.
Once I get the best reception, I have to lock all my muscles, because even a minuscule head movement will be sufficient to disturb the connection. If the direction of my cellphone’s antenna changes, the caller may not be able to hear me and she wills say, “Terputus-putus, pak!”
If the call is an important one, I’ll have no choice but to rush out of the house before it is dropped altogether. Then I’ll have to continue the conversation outside. The problem is that now my neighbors and passersby can hear what I’m discussing. It can be a bit disconcerting sometimes.
The problem is that the signal from my GSM operators — I have two — isn’t strong enough to penetrate the walls of my tiny house. Apparently, we live a little bit too far from the nearest Base Transceiver Station (BTS).
Now, does this issue sound familiar to you? It must, as research has shown that 70 percent of cellphone calls go on indoors. You may also have noticed that, in a large office building, people tend to call each other using cellphones rather than desk phones.
If your office is on the 24th floor, or you live in a high-rise apartment, you’ll complain about a weak signal as well. What you need is a repeater, which should preferably be provided by your mobile phone operator or else a third party.
Usually, a repeater comes with its own low-profile, ceiling antenna. Its main function is to amplify weak cellular signals, so people inside a building can get decent signal strength for their cellphones. A lot of repeater products are available on the market. You can even buy repeaters for your vehicle.
But, there is a problem. New apartment and office towers are sprouting up too fast for operators to keep up. As a result, tenants in many new buildings have to wait a long time before they’re able to conveniently make or receive calls from their building.
In addition, property owners may not like the idea of having gobs of unsightly backhaul antennas decorating their interior.
Another solution is to attach an antenna extension to your cellphone. This may work, but it’s quite inconvenient. Other more sophisticated solutions consist of connecting the cellphone to a small amplifier with its own antenna. That’s definitely not my preferred way of using a cellphone, either.
Smaller than Microcell
A new buzzword in the market is femtocell. Think about it as a personal cell site with a private base transceiver station (BTS). The output power is just enough to cover a house or apartment unit. Femto base stations are being offered by a number of vendors including Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia Siemens Network (NSN), 2wire, Aricent, Azaire, Bharti and ZTE.
Last month, Alcatel-Lucent launched its femto product in Jakarta. The price was not revealed, but Alcatel Indonesia said it would be in the same range as a high-end cellphone.
The first thing to keep in mind is that a femto station is not a signal booster. It’s more a broadband router with a cellular access point. Thus, you’ll have to have a fast broadband connection such as xDSL in your office, house or apartment if you want to use it. A femto device can support any mobile phone technology — GSM, GPRS, EDGE, 3G UMTS, HSPA, CDMA, TDMA, PCS and even the soon-to-be-available WiMAX. The ones from Alcatel-Lucent are designed specifically for 3G and HSPA.
Femto vendors mention lackluster 3G adoption by cellphone users as the main reason operators must include femto in their offerings. There are other selling points, too.
The voice signal travels to the operator’s network using an IP connection. Alcatel-Lucent — which claims to be the largest IP networking vendor after Cisco — uses its Flat IP architecture as the platform for its femto products.
The technology makes hierarchical nodes — such as BTS and the Radio Network Controller (RNC) — unnecessary, allowing operators to expand service coverage while keeping capital and operational expenditures in check.
With lower investment and operational costs resulting from using the low-cost IP instead of tower-and-cell infrastructure, operators are supposed to be able to reduce the rates they charge.
One future possibility is that a femto base station will come bundled in a subscription package, so the initial cost to end-users can be spread out over a longer period. Calls made via a femto station should cost less than calls made through conventional cellular networks.
Alcatel-Lucent calls its product Base Station Router (BSR) Femto. Developed in cooperation with cellphone maker Sagem, a BSR Femto will communicate with your cellphone using exactly the same chunk of radio frequency that your operator uses anywhere else in their network. That is the reason this product will only be available directly from your cellphone operator.
Because it is IP-based, users can also enjoy high-speed Internet access at home by connecting their devices to the BSR Femto. Alcatel-Lucent offers two femto models: a basic “stand-alone” and a higher-end “integrated” version. The latter comes with Wi-Fi b/g for wireless LAN, VoIP, IPTV, Ethernet and USB ports.
Built-in security features help prevent your neighbors from piggybacking on your Femto without sharing costs. What about a house guest? Iman Hirawadi, Alcatel-Lucent Indonesia’s Senior Manager for Technical Business Development, said during the press conference that all it would take was to contact the operator’s call center to add your guest’s number to the list of registered users, and he could immediately use the BSR Femto to make calls.
But, there are a few other obstacles. First, unlike in Singapore and other highly wired cities, broadband penetration in Indonesia is still very limited. For this reason, Alcatel-Lucent is not expecting to sell hundreds of thousands of femtos here. Rather, they will be targeted people living in luxury apartments.
As I see it, the biggest question is what is the use of a femto base station if everyone in the family subscribes to a different operator. In my case, for example, I subscribe to both XL and Telkomsel while my wife is a Telkomsel subscriber and my daughter uses Indosat. Do we have to buy three BSR Femtos, one for each operator?
Since late last year field trials have been ongoing in Japan and Europe. Alcatel-Lucent has projected that the product will become available by mid-year. So, we still have around six months to see what develops. Nonetheless, the idea of having adequate signal power inside my study is an attractive one.